Cleaner, Cheaper, Faster, Less Hassle? When Trains Win Out Over Planes

Today in America, nearly three million people catch a flight every day. Over the last hundred years, commercial aviation has evolved into such a regular part of life that booking a flight rarely provokes a second thought. Explaining this phenomenon is relatively simple. Planes are fast, safe, reliably scheduled, piloted by someone else, and benefit from billions of dollars in local, state, and federal infrastructure investments.

All of these factors in concert make taking a flight an appealing option. However, flying is not without its flaws and hassles. Let’s take a look at how another mode, passenger rail, compares to flying, particularly for trips less than 400 miles, which is considered the “sweet spot” for train travel. At these distances, the benefits of rail travel can outshine traditional air travel.

Expenses are a significant concern while traveling. Of course there’s the cost of your flight and checked bag—if you’re traveling with your family, these expenses multiply. But there’s also a whole slate of ancillary expenses to consider. When flying, unless you live near an airport with reliable public transit or can get a ride from a friend or family member, you face a choice between an unusually expensive taxi/rideshare ride to the airport or paying to park in an airport lot. In the airport, stores and restaurants charge exorbitant prices, assisted by the fact that they’re your only options for food, drink (don’t forget—bottles larger than 3.4 oz aren’t allowed through TSA), convenience items, etc. 

All sorts of products–from snacks to soda to Claritin–often receive hefty markups in airports.

When taking the train, tickets will typically cost less than a flight along the same route, but that’s only where the savings begin. Train stations are usually located in city centers, which reduces the cost of getting to them. Furthermore, you can patronize any nearby restaurant or shop for your needs, and their prices are generally much lower than their airport counterparts. As an added benefit to their centrality, train stations tend to be a well-served node of the local public transportation network.

Denver’s Union Station sits in the middle of a bustling neighborhood and is served by more than half a dozen local rapid transit lines.

Denver train station

As we experience warmer winters, hotter summers, and an assortment of increasingly destructive natural disasters, it’s important to keep in mind that flying has severe consequences for the environment. Burning jet fuel ejects carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and soot directly into the upper atmosphere. Further, the typically long distance of airports from city centers encourages environmentally destructive sprawl as they develop into freight hubs and employment centers.